Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!
October 6, 2008 10:44 AM   Subscribe

How can I change my habits? I'm a graduate student, and I am taking my PhD qualifying examinations within the next year. I am down to the wire and I need to change my habits, and they are very, very bad.

Studying for the examinations will require reading a few hundred books ("reading" often means skimming, and a few months is usually all the time we have to prepare). I have made it this far, in a top ten program, by doing very very little work and playing hard to my intellectual strengths. I have excelled in the program, and no one knows the extent of my poor habits, so I can't exactly fess up. I can count on one hand the number of assigned books I have actually read. But my degree work is really important to me (yes, I promise, really), and my success in it is, too. I want to change.

The problems that have led me here are several:

1. Plain old laziness and procrastination. Because I've been able--for YEARS--to get away with doing very little and absorbing a lot, I've continued to do so. I have a set of skills that allows me to get away with this. I know hitting bottom is sometimes how people turn it around, but it hasn't happened yet, and I don't want it to. Even if I intend to do what I'm supposed to, I fuck around and don't--and get through it anyway. I am great at resolving to do things, much less so at actually doing them. And I'm great at picking a new "system" to adopt and then abandoning it. I also produce pretty good work at the last minute.

2. Depression. I have been depressed for many years, probably a combination of dysthymia and major depression. Yes, I am in treatment with a therapist and on medication. Sometimes it doesn't work. So the number of days I lose to fucking around is matched by the number I lose to being depressed.

3. Trauma. I have not had an easy time of it. In my first year of graduate school, my only living parent died. I was the executor of that parent's estate, many states away. I am still grieving, and this, too, seriously disrupted my schoolwork. Yes, I had (have) a grief counselor in addition to the therapist.

So it's not just sheer laziness. If it were, I would deserve every "get your shit together" in the world. And I know, of course, that I'd have been fired from a "real" job long ago. But that alone isn't enough.

I already know that paying serious attention to my physical well-being will be a huge help--that I need an exercise routine, a more careful diet--as will continuing with my mental-health work (therapy, medication, alternative healing). How can I make that routine work?

And really, how can I get serious about my work? How do you serial procrastinators stop yourselves in the act? How do you make a routine stick when you've been averse to one for so long? I want things to change, but sometimes it's a huge uphill climb to change them.

Throwaway email: Please, please, please, I promise you I have done all the berating and tough love talk you feel the need to do right now. Solution-oriented advice most welcome.
posted by anonymous to Education (15 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Leech Block is all the rage in my graduate program right now. Obviously, it's easy enough to circumvent if you really want to, but it's a good reminder.

Otherwise, all of the suggestions you've probably heard a million times really work. Write up schedules/to do lists/goals and stick to them. Take a break every hour and write down what you've been doing to see what's sucking up your time and how you can be more efficient.

Especially for preliminary exams/comps/etc finding a study buddy in your program can really help. Your reading lists may not be identical but getting together and talking about your progress can be a great way to make yourself accountable to someone else and have somebody to vent to.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:26 AM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're probably not as lazy as you think you are. You're a grad student, so Impostor syndrome might be a good thing to keep in mind.

Other than that, get a friend (or two, or three) who also need(s) to study for quals/write a dissertation/whatever long project of the same time scale. Meet with said friend every week and show what you've done (books you've read, etc). Perhaps even make study dates with the friend.

You're good when you've got a deadline, so set little deadlines in order to make the big one seem less daunting. You're also likely wily enough to talk yourself out of following little deadlines if they don't really matter; this is where the friend comes in.

Having a friend to meet with is also a great way to keep up other routines, especially exercise, as well.

One more comment: make sure you get the grieving time you need. It's not laziness if you delay taking quals or otherwise rearrange your academic program because of grief.
posted by nat at 11:33 AM on October 6, 2008

Something that helped me overcome procrastination habits was scheduling, which I'm well aware is probably a common suggestion... but it works! I use Google Calendar to schedule out every minute of the approaching week every Sunday. Then I don't let myself go to sleep until I have completed everything on the calendar for that day. If I have reading to do I will map that out in detail (page numbers, etc.) You mentioned exercing -- put that into your schedule too. You're more like to actually do it if you have a time set aside for it.

Obviously unexpected things will come up occasionally, so you'll have to go with the flow. But if they do take the time to change your schedule so you will still accomplish everything that week.

Scheduling yourself is a skill that will take some serious practice, and if you're anything like me at first you will be incorrect on your time estimates. But keep after it and DO NOT go to bed until you have finished the agenda for the day. After a month or two of practice you'll be dead on with your time estimates and feel much more accomplished.

Hope this helps.
posted by nokry56 at 11:36 AM on October 6, 2008

Habit changing advice I think I picked up here at MeFi a while back: do (or don't do) anything for a month and it becomes a habit.

So whatever changes you decide to make, persevere. Painful and/or frustrating at first, they eventually become part of you.
posted by philip-random at 12:22 PM on October 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have excelled in the program, and no one knows the extent of my poor habits, so I can't exactly fess up.

Why not? Isn't that what your advisor is there for, to lead you through the process, despite all obstacles? It sounds to me like coming clean (or at least a little airing of your dirty laundry) would help you. And I bet you wouldn't be the first one to have struggled, despite outward appearances. Besides, a little embarrassment may be just the kick in the pants you need. Think of it as a cleansing.

Regardless, good luck.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 12:33 PM on October 6, 2008

I think that what you're feeling is quite normal. Of course your story is exceptional, but really most graduate students feel this at some point. I'll second the scheduling idea. You need to set yourself small, achievable tasks each day. You needn't work for that long at a single task but you need to maintain a consistency. You should also allow yourself time to chill out, see a movie etc but within a schedule. I also recommend getting some solid physical exercise. That may seem trivial and not a way to contribute to your research but it makes you feel good about yourself, and people who feel good about themselves work better. Good luck with everything!
posted by ob at 12:34 PM on October 6, 2008

I can't speak to that kind of depression, but if you take the procrastination on its own, here's the most helpful advice that I've come across so far.

I passed my qualifying exams a few weeks ago. There was a period during the lead-up when I was having a really hard time not frittering the day away on Arts and Letters Daily, the Chronicle of Higher Education boards, various blogs...and, case in point, Metafilter.

Something that helped me immensely was adopting the practice over at Phinished: breaking work into smaller-than-you'd-even-believe chunks. People there talk about getting in another x30 before bed. I asked what the hell this meant, and, to my incredulity, learned that they really do work for 30 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. Some of them find that they do better with x45s, and others with x15s. This, in contrast to my self-exhortations to work for 3 hours straight before lunch.

I thought I'd give it a whirl, and, to my astonishment, it works. Occasionally I still "unbind" my own pacts, but my overall productivity has gone way up. I think the psychological mechanism is that I begin the day thinking that this little x30s is so easy, I can't possibly fuck it up; then after half the day has gone by, I don't want to let myself slip because I've been so good so far. And when I do slip, it feels easier to get back on track when I'm only gunning for 30 minute chunks, as opposed to 3 hour ones.

I now tend to do x45s and then 15 minute breaks, starting on the hour. Then I can write out my day in my agenda, crossing them out as I go:


...etc. It makes research/studying go by more like grading papers: you work under the description of "fulfillable daily task" instead of a something bigger like "contributing to scholarship" or "fighting to pass my exam."

Another piece of advice is to set yourself a definite time by which you have to stop doing schoolwork each day. In this sense, I've found that a key to defeating procrastination is to be firm about NOT working (past a certain point). If you doing start the day thinking "I've got until I go to bed to read this," then it's very easy to conclude, "So right now I'll read a blog." Saying "I've only got until 5:00 PM" prompts you to get down to business.
posted by Beardman at 12:49 PM on October 6, 2008 [16 favorites]

Here is how I changed my procrastination habit:

I bought a small calendar (moleskine makes one, but mine is from a stationery store). I carry it with me everywhere and I write down on every day things which must be or I intend to have done that day. I cross them off when finished. I put a small X next to those I put of or otherwise don't get to. Then add those to the next available day. Often one task is spread out over a day or two, by bring broken down into parts.

It sound a little OCD and very rigid, but I don't find that it is, in practice. Nonetheless, it has really helped me exert self-discipline. It's embarrassing, all those X's!

Basically, what everyone above has said. This is just the method I used successfully.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:09 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Beardman has the right idea. I got through my Masters thesis (which I don't think is as hard as studying for quals by a long shot) by making it a 9-5 job, like I would go to campus and work from 9-5 every day. I still had less than productive days, but seriously having a "quitting time" at 5 helped a lot. Also, not opening my RSS reader.

I also think that nat is right in saying it's not going to reflect badly on you if you need to delay your quals to cope with grief. I can't imagine anyone thinking less of you.

Good luck!
posted by SoftRain at 1:16 PM on October 6, 2008

I know this is painful. You have certain specifics going on, but believe me, everyone fills in those specifics with their own issues. Exams are just brutal in so many emotional, mental and physical ways. Power through them and you WILL feel better at the end.
Here are some things that worked for me:
- insanely small scheduled timeslots (even 15 minutes to start, work your way up to 45).
- build in breaks, ONLY screw off during those breaks
- get a (silent) kitchen timer - then you don't have to look at the clock - it'll tell *you*
- set the timer even to goof off
- figure out if you work better in the morning or evening, and arrange exercise around that
- everything else is on the back-burner
- repeat: EVERYTHING ELSE IS NOT A PRIORITY. It's so easy to get in the habit of thinking "oh I have to go get that new knife sharpened, tomorrow will be good, and look, it's on my to-do list!" For the next several months, make studying your only priority. Everything else gets neglected.
- tell your friends you're going underground for a while. Then you won't feel so bad when you don't call them back, or feel the pressure to be social in ways you don't want to be at the moment.
- for books: don't just write "read x book" on your list - write, "read intro. read two chapters. read conclusion." so each one of those is an item to do.
- gold stars on calendar for each day you do your tasks - seriously
- accountability group is great
- I had to put a veto on my RSS for several months. It was painful but I couldn't manage just bits and pieces. So I had to go cold turkey.
- tell your advisor a bit about what's going on. Maybe they'd be interested in helping you set up a bi-weekly meeting to report your progress.
- I finally got some ADD drugs and my god, they were lifesavers in the most extreme way. I remember thinking, "whoa, this is how concentration works?" I don't think anything else would have worked for me without them.
posted by barnone at 1:32 PM on October 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

here's a big question: are you still interested in your subject? I just finished a PhD in a subject that I was quite interested in initially, became very disinterested in, had difficulty then finding mild interest in, regained mild interest sufficiently to complete the damn thing, found it exacerbated a myriad number of neurotic/depressive traits to the point of actually feeling perpetually depressed and realising this would not lift until I finished it. This was more or less accurate, although in the final months of writing up the depression became very intense.

All the above organisational ideas are great, but I found that finishing it just became however came best to work on it because my depression around it was so massive. It was impossible for me to organise, because that seemed like a big procrastinatory task (and buying and labelling folders for notes is a big procrastinatory task) Also, be honest with your advisors. I was very fortunate to have one that had a heart and soul as well as a brain and endured my intermittent workaholic mania/months of laziness and then fraughtness with great patience. Books about how to do a PhD help too if you find a good one

Perhaps the best advice I heard, as well, was to remember that no one gives you a task they don't think you're capable of fulfilling. It may in fact be total bunk, but it helped to break down a lot of the mental baggage for me.
posted by iamnotateenagegirl at 1:49 PM on October 6, 2008

I'll echo the above comment about Impostor syndrome. For years I felt like I didn't actually "do" anything at work, despite advancing/excelling/getting bonuses and raises.

Two things:
1) You are actually SO good at it that you don't have to work as hard as anyone else. Or you love it so much that it doesn't feel like working or it's not as hard for you as anyone else.

2) as the post above me (iamnotateenagegirl) asks, are you still interested in your subject? No seriously. Are you?

Beyond that, try micro-steps. No seriously. "Put pen next to computer. Turn on computer. Open Word processor." That's what got me through a serious block and finishing two novels.
posted by micawber at 3:00 PM on October 6, 2008

I would have answered earlier, but reading this question made me realize that I was procrastinating by reading AskMetafilter right in the middle of my designated block of work time. Oops!

I have tried many of the suggestions provided in the answers above (study buddies, schedule everything, break all tasks down into tiny pieces, confess all to advisor, etc.). Some have worked some of the time; some have never worked for me; none has been the key to productivity.

The single best thing I have done to help me keep my head above water in grad school has been finding a dissertation coach / job search coach / career coach who "clicks" with me. She helps me pick which strategies (scheduling, small-chunking, etc) will fit best with my current task and mood, and reporting in to her regularly gives me a series of small, short-term deadlines to meet and a sense that someone else is really interested in how many pages I read or how many words I write.

Yes, you already have a team of professionals (counselor, therapist; is your academic advisor in the picture at all?) helping you keep yourself together, but adding a coach whose only job is to help you tackle the workload might still be a good idea. Your therapist and counselor are really there to talk about your feelings, not the practical how-to of getting through a few hundred books.

There's an argument to be made for "coming clean" to your academic advisor, but if you're in a competitive graduate program, you might find that your professors are the kind of people who are really good at doing their own thing but not so good at showing other people how to do it. Know what I mean? And I could understand if the thought of confessing your difficulties to your advisor fills you with dread. Academia involves so much "performativity," so much playing the role of competence and confidence regardless of what you're feeling. I would say to think hard about your advisor's personality and how your relationship with them works before deciding whether to seek help from them or not. It could be a great solution in your case, but unfortunately not all advisors are equally good at advising.

I gather that some people find a peer group of "study buddies" really helpful. For me personally, when I get together with peers it's too easy to fall into just telling them about how much I've been procrastinating. It's hard to convince myself that my commitments to them are really serious. Paying a professional coach by the hour helps me take the task more seriously.

A few more points about the dissertation / career coach:
  • She gives me lots of praise and reinforcement for what I have accomplished each week, even if it doesn't look like much in the grand scheme. Reinforcement is important for staying motivated and maintaining desirable behaviors (like good study habits), but grad school isn't really structured to give you that constant drip of reinforcement.
  • She's not at all involved in judging the quality of my work; her only mission is to keep me making forward progress. This is an important difference between a coach and an academic advisor because perfectionism is a big problem for a lot of grad students. If you're too busy worrying about doing your work perfectly, you won't get it done at all.
  • She keeps me from dwelling on my "failures." If I don't make my goals for the week, she doesn't let me waste time beating myself up about it or freaking out about how this is a sign that I am a terrible grad student and will never finish my project. She simply redirects my attention to planning my next moves. You know, you can't do anything about the hours and days you've already spent procrastinating, so it's best not to worry about them. The hours and days ahead of you are the ones that are in your control now.
  • She helps me set realistic goals that I have a reasonably high probability of actually achieving. For example, going from full-time procrastination to a productive 40-hour work week would not be a realistic goal for me or for most people. Sometimes setting the bar low is actually the best plan. Getting started on your work when you think you "have to" do several hours of it in a row is hard. Getting started when you only "have to" do 15 minutes is easier, and you might find your 15 minutes turning into an hour.
OK, so having just written a lengthy advertisement for dissertation coaches / job search coaches / career coaches everywhere, I will add one more thing:

Talk to a reference librarian about how to use the databases in your field to find book reviews . . . preferably available in full text online. Obviously one should never substitute reading a book review for reading the book, but reading two or three reviews of the same book before you delve into it yourself can help you get oriented to the author's main argument and who else they're responding to and that sort of stuff. It's just another strategy for comprehension & retention when you're trying to get through mountains of reading.
posted by Orinda at 8:23 PM on October 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is this internet a big procrastination source for you? One thing that I'm finding very helpful is a couple of simple freeware applications that limit my time online. One, called 'Freedom' allows the user to shut off their networking function for a specified time. Another one, pageaddict I believe, allows the user to restrict particular urls to times of day for use, or limits total amount of time per day on a given url.
posted by Katiekaboom at 12:26 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been struggling with very similar problems. I think it could be very helpful to read this:

Steve Pavlina - A personal story
posted by volpe at 10:40 AM on October 7, 2008

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